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Dombaj-Ul'gen: The jewel of the Western Caucasus

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Dombaj-Ul\'gen: The jewel of the Western Caucasus

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Karachay-Cherkess, Russia, Asia

Lat/Lon: 43.24524°N / 41.72744°E

Object Title: Dombaj-Ul'gen: The jewel of the Western Caucasus

Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 27, 2016

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Summer

 

Page By: andre hangaard

Created/Edited: Dec 12, 2016 / Dec 23, 2016

Object ID: 989853

Hits: 298 

Page Score: 86.37%  - 22 Votes 

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Returning to the Caucasus

Dombaj-Ul’gen


”-Dombaj-what?” I said to my Swiss friend Andi over the phone when he gave me a call one afternoon in November more than a year ago. I’d never heard about a mountain called Dombaj-Ul’gen. Nor was I rather impressed by its elevation of 4.046 meters.

Skhara, the wild looking twin peaks of Ushba and the beautiful Kazbek were the mountains in the Caucasus familiar to me. And of course Elbrus, which I climbed by myself 8 years ago. Dombaj-Ul’gen remained unknown to me. However, after Andi enthusiastically told me about its wild and rugged ridges and its very demanding UIAA grading being D-, I understood this summit must be a rather special one. In addition to this, this mountain also turned out to be a country high point, as it is the highest summit of the Republic of Abkhazia, a country which I also wasn’t very familiar with. 

After a while I did some research on the mountain and I discovered that Dombaj-Ul’gen had a very interesting climbing history. Although it was not that easy to find any good material not being printed in Russian. I soon found out that Dombaj-Ul’gen was a kind of hidden gem in the western Caucasus, a mountain which was very much climbed especially in the 60’ and 70’, but not that frequently scaled today. It is situated in a very wild and beautiful part of the Caucasus, with the small mountain village Dombaj at its feet. 

Elbrus
Elbrus, 5.643 m

My trip to Elbrus in 2008 was in clear remembrance. It was so nice and peaceful hiking around the slopes and the green meadows around Terskol. Thus I felt very much willing to return to this mountainous region once more. Also, visiting the Caucasus with Andi would make it even more interesting since he had been in the region many times before and spoke Russian. 

 

 


Time to prepare

The village of Dombaj
The village of Dombaj
So it was decided and thus we set a date for the later part of August 2016. Due to logistical reasons, the administrative challenges but most because of the seriousness of the upcoming rock climb, we decided to use the service of a good and competent Russian guide service. After a thorough research we found Sergey and his team at mountainguide.ru

When planning climbing trips to Russia, time is essential, thus we already in January kicked off the administrative work by applying for invitation, visa, airline tickets and the border zone permit. The latter being utmost important to obtain, since Dombaj-Ul’gen is situated in the so called border zone between Russia and Abkhazia. The time required for such a permit is at least 3 months and it needs to be applied for by a contact person or an agency in Russia and later physically picked up in the region of the intended climb.

In the village
In the village


Arriving to Russia

Khrebet Musat Čeri
Time flies and soon Aeroflots’ A320 made a touchdown on Krasnodar International Airport close to midnight. With my bag full of climbing gear I walked out in the warm Russian night to find my way to the hotel in Krasnodar, close to the Kuban river and not far from the Black Sea. After some hours of sleep my buddy Andi knocked on the door. He arrived later to Russia as he came directly from Switzerland. The following day we explored Krasnodar, met with Sergey from the climbing company and prepared for the almost 500 km drive to the mountain village of Dombaj. Very early next morning our guide Aleks picked us up in his car and we set off for the Caucasus.

In the early afternoon we drove up to the hotel which had been assigned to us in Dombaj. Aleks we found out was a hell of a driver and made this rather long ride a pleasant one. Before we came to Dombaj we made a stop at the less charming city of Cherkessk where we picked up our border zone permits after some mandatory queuing around at the not too busy permit office.

Almost immediately Aleks took us on a brisk acclimatization hike into one of the neighboring valleys. Soon we got a glance at our objective, the 4.046 meter high Dombaj-Ul’gen looked like a gigantic rock massif in the last sunrays of the afternoon. 



V- rock around Dombaj

The Rock pillar
The Rock pillar
The little village was embedded in a green, lush and lovely mountainous landscape where impressive mountains with sharp ridges and steep summits raised to the skies. Three full days we were supposed to spend here before we attempted our big climb to acclimatize and to do some rock climbing training. 
 
The following two days we spent on vertical rocks handpicked by Aleks in Dombaj and in the neighboring village of Terbeda. We soon found out that Aleks was a brilliant mountain man. A man of few words, with a steady hand, humble tone and with utmost focus on safety, he managed us up and down the rocks. 
We practiced belaying, rappelling and how to maneuver a jumar device. It was quite a struggle to negotiate a UIAA V section in sturdy La Sportiva alpine boots.
 But we had loads of fun on the rock and Aleks, confident with the way we moved around, declared us ready to meet “The Great Bison”, which is the proper translation of the name Dombaj-Ul’gen.
Local crag in Dombaj
Local crag in Dombaj

We later found out that Aleks was a K2 summiteer. He was part of a Russian climbing expedition in 2007 who climbed on the two 8.000 meter giants Broad Peak and K2 in the Karakoram. If Aleks was lacking something, it was not alpine climbing experience. Needless to say, we felt we were in very good hands.

As always in the mountains, my obsession of the weather gets worse and worse as closer to D day. The weather in the Caucasus can be rather unpredictable and the forecast for our three days was not too good. Taking this into account we of course had one extra day in reserve in case of bad weather, but still we were in need of two consecutive days of good weather for a safe climb. We both knew that the technical summit ridge would become a very nasty and dangerous business if we were to be caught in a thunder storm or a severe snow blizzard.














Going to high camp

Valley Ptyš
Valley Ptys
And suddenly it was time to break up. We woke up to a grey and cloudy sky and stashed our heavy backpacks in the vehicle which would take us a couple of kilometers up to the trail head in the neighboring valley called Ptyš where our long hike to the base camp would begin.
It was rather obvious that not many people hiked in this part of the valley as our hiking trail was more or less overgrown by wild vegetation. 
The rain was drizzling and our gore tex jackets went on and off as its usually goes when the weather plays tricks up in the mountains.
At around 2800 meter when the grass was ending and the slope became steeper, we watched a thick layer of grey clouds stubbornly clinging to the rugged summits of the nearby raging peaks.

As reinforcement to our team we also had Saša, acting as the assistant guide. Saša was a senior climber in his early sixties and only spoke Russian. 
He looked sturdy and strong as a bull. Not very surprising to us, he was of course a USSR Snow Leopard. Also he had Everest South Col experience.
At the time all four of us reached the base of the glacier and Aleks placed his first ice screw in the moderately steep icy slope, the weather seemed to clear up and the annoying drizzle stopped.

Further up the glacier flattened out and we climbed unroped up to a little rocky saddle with some sharp gendarmes. What a great place for rock climbing practice, I said to myself.
At this point we got a good look at our objective. Now the north ridge pf Dombaj-Ul’gen did not look as vertical as it looked before. Our ridge did not look less forceful because of that though. Immediately to our right we saw the enormous east wall, which looked totally impossible to climb.
Although we knew from the Russian climbing literature that there were more than one TD route up that great wall. 
The almost vertical icefields further up the wall looked terrifying and I was glad that we did not choose one of those routes!
Approaching the glacier.
Approaching the glacier.


After the saddle the terrain flattened out and we made our way towards our bivouac place. We scrambled up a steep gully with loose rocks in various size. With our heavy backpacks this became a challenging act of balance. In the late afternoon we arrived to our camp site just below the Fisher Saddle at around 3.500 meter. Here we pitched our two Redfox tents and began to collect water from a nearby stream in order to get some 
hot tea and try the Russian mountaineering food. After having supper in the most remarkable of surroundings, we sorted our gear, prepared our packs, checked our clothing and settled in for the night. 
To the saddle
To the saddle

Full of excitement I lay awake for a long part of the night listening to all the sounds. At one time rain poured down which of course made me doubt of tomorrows conditions. Aleks planned to get up at 04:00 AM. However, before our alarm went off, I have already peaked out in the dark between the damp nylon walls of our tent. 

In the far I heard some light thunder. Aleks came by our tent and told us to go to sleep one more hour since he feared that a thunderstorm might head our direction.
Both Andi and me are big fans of extremely early alpine starts, but here we did not complain about our guides decision. 

When we got up later in the break of dawn and sipped on a hot cup of tea, the threatening thunderstorm seemed to have diverted and the sky did not look too bad. Total happiness.




Along the north ridge

Night on high camp
Night on high camp
At around 07:00 AM we began scrambling up in the direction of the saddle and the beginning of the north ridge. We stepped over huge blocks of rock and soon it became warm underneath my gore tex jacket. The metallic sound of carabiners, nuts and other hardware clinging together increased the more steep it became.
In the beginning there was walking terrain and we gained elevation rather rapidly.

After half an hour it was time to take out the rope since the ridge had become steeper and a fall would have had a serious impact. Aleks and me formed the first rope team and Andi and Saša the second. In the lower sections we went on a running belay and we moved rather quickly over the rocks in classic II-terrain. After around 3 pitches we came to a crux which contained of a vertical wall. This part was fairly exposed but I recall that I never really took a good look at the void underneath me. 

I was fully concentrated in belaying Aleks who slowly but persistently climbed the crux and athletically pressed himself up the section of IV- rock. As a belay hold we used one of the few bolts that was fixed on the route. Although many of these bolts were of disputable quality and required a thorough testing before use. Meanwhile Aleks placed a nut as an intermediate belay and swiftly continued around the corner, leaving me feeding him with the 10 mm rope. 


Scrambling
Scrambling



When Aleks gave me a signal to follow him, he started to take in rope and I immediately negotiated the crux as there was no time for hesitation. Half way up I was forced to perform a quick and airy shift of hands in the dry and solid rock. Before my move, I made sure I had good tension in the climbing rope above me. Falling was not an option.
Running belay
Running belay

According to the route description Andi had dug out from several Russian climbing sites, we knew there were at least 2 crux sections to be mastered. In between, the terrain was of various grade I-II.

Our progress was good and safe and I think we kept a good pace. The last crux offered a little chimney which required some extra strength. The rock was generally in great shape and due to the improved weather with some occasional sunshine, the rock was dry too. It was a pleasure to climb, I was thrilled and enjoyed every single pitch. 


Aleks knowledge of the route helped a lot. During the climb our party climbed faster so we soon lost contact with Andi and Saša. For Saša it was his first time on this mountain so he was not familiar with all the twists and turns of the route.



After three hours on the ridge we stood on the main summit of Dombaj-Ul’gen. The summit consisted out of a few large rocks and to the east a couple of meters lower, there was a small plateau, large enough for a small tent. Here Aleks and me sat and drank some tea and ate some cookies. I was trying to take in the breathtaking scenery around me. To the north I saw the village of Dombaj deep down in the green valley. To the south I looked into Abkhazia. To the east I was looking down into the abyss of the Buul’gen valley and to the west I saw the ridge which continued towards the western summit which is 4.036 meter. 
Gaining height
Gaining height

Reaching the summit
Reaching the summit

Just beside me was an almost blank polished wall which plunged several hundred meters in the apocalypse. This wall for sure looked nothing but terrifying.

Far to the east I recognized the cone shaped colossus of the twin summit Mount Elbrus, 5.630 meter. 

Last picth
Last pitch

Long way down

Popular belay stand.
Popular belay stand.
After a while on the summit the sky darkened and large snowflakes began to drizzle down. Aleks quickly mounted his shell pants and I zipped up what could be zipped up. Soon we saw two familiar silhouettes further down below the summit and I gladly recognize Andi and Saša negotiating the final pitch to the summit. Finally we were all together on the roof of the western Caucasus. We congratulated each other and took the classic summit shots. 

Fixing belay
Fixing belay
After a final sip of tea it was time to head down. Fortunately the snowing had stopped and the weather looked decent once more. 
We needed good weather as we soon understood that the descent will be very long and time consuming as we went for the first rappel to slowly lower us down.

We had to build stands for each pitch using webbings. Sometimes the rock offered us excellent natural belay points and sometimes not.
Then we had to improvise and extend with back-up slings. We used two ropes 60 meters each. We rappelled down the entire length and used the second rope as a belay.
Aleks went down as the last man which meant that he was forced to free climb the pitch with no belay from above but only from below.

After a while it got rather tiresome on the ridge and the rappelling became slightly monotonous. The colors on the mountain became soft and warm as it turned towards sunset and we watched an absolute brilliant sunset with big fluffy clouds and an orange flaming sun. 
Rappelling down the north ridge.
Rappelling down the north ridge.


My Suunto watch altitude meter showed that we were still far above the saddle so the climb was far from over yet.
We put on our headlamps and I squeezed out of my harness to be able to put on another layer of warming merino wool on my upper body.
The darkness came very sudden and soon we found ourselves rappelling down into a black abyss. All the time we felt safe and sound and the entire exercise was very exciting. We were both very impressed by Aleks who down climbed the ridge with no belay at all in darkness. We only saw his headlamp moving far above us.

After around six hours of constant rappelling we touched base and entered ground where we could more or less walk upright. It was completely dark and we were of course rather tired from this long day.
With a smile on our faces we entered our camp site and released our ropes and harnesses. 
After collecting some water, Aleks and Saša brewed some hot tea and after that we sat together and shared some freeze dried mountain food and bread. It tasted very nice. 


We realized that we were rather hungry. That night it was a lot to digest when crawling into my sleeping bag. It was a day full of the most spectacular alpine impressions in a delicate environment with people around me who appreciate this as much as I did. And I guess we were all as tired and satisfied with the outcome of the day.  

Still a long way down.
Still a long way down.
Glowing fire over Caucasus.
Glowing fire over Caucasus.

Walking out

Beautiful camp
Beautiful camp
On the third day we woke up to nice weather after a few hours of sleep. We were still far up in the remote valley and had a long day in front of us. But our two Russian friends were not in a hurry. Without stress we clean up our camp, packed our stuff and enjoyed a mountain breakfast. After filling up our water bottles we set off down through the steep scree gully and continued to the glacier. 


The hike back through the valley was uneventful but smooth. I remember specifically when we took a break in the middle of some raspberry bushes. Suddenly all four of us were picking those delicious berries and forgot about time. Aleks arranged that the guy with the truck picked us up at the end of the trail end and so we could enjoy a cool ride on a typical Russian terrain vehicle the last kilometers.
When driving up in front of the hotel, Aleks quickly dug into the backseat of his parked car and pulled out some bottles of the Russian beer Baltika. Although not the least chilled, we enjoyed our beers and ended the climb in a very descent and traditional alpine way with a big “nastrovje”!

Later that evening we had a nice meal all together in one of the restaurants in the little village. Many skewers of shashlik went down that evening. Aleks told us about his upcoming plans to go to the Alps in autumn to climb the Lion ridge of Matterhorn, Andi revealed his plans to return to the Caucasus next year to climb Khalaca in South Ossetia and I was having Kazbek on my mind. Where one climb ends, dreams of the next one are being born…










Images

Dombaj-Ul’gen

Comments


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Viewing: 1-4 of 4    

markhallamCongratulations Andre!

markhallam

Voted 10/10

I had wondered what you had been getting up to. Not quite so high as usual, but a bit steeper!
Good luck in whatever you plan next!
Mark
Posted Dec 19, 2016 3:30 pm

andre hangaardRe: Congratulations Andre!

andre hangaard

Hasn't voted

Thanks Mark! Yes, I learned that elevation is not always the most important! :-) It was a beautiful trip. Lovely region.

Btw. I've sent you an email on you "Doc"- mail.
Posted Dec 20, 2016 5:00 am

SergeyThank you Andre!

Sergey

Voted 10/10

Thank you very march for your wonderful report. I was there 40 years ago and thanks you I feel as if it were to day.

Sergey
Posted Dec 29, 2016 2:15 pm

andre hangaardRe: Thank you Andre!

andre hangaard

Hasn't voted

Thanks for your kind comments Sergey. I'm glad you liked my TR. Indeed I enjoyed climbing this mountain very much. And the region is so beautiful. Your Dombaj-Ul’gen-page helped us alot when we planned the trip.
Posted Dec 30, 2016 5:40 am

Viewing: 1-4 of 4